Excelling in Shells

18 Feb

Highlights:

  • The Shell Shop started in 1955
  • The shop’s signature sign is from an old Shell gas station
  • Generations of customers come back to find unique treasures

Decades ago, a fisherman’s son began selling abalone shells on a street corner in Morro Bay for ten cents apiece. That first summer, he made around $100, and he hasn’t stopped selling shells by the seashore since.

David Thomas was ten years old then, and though his shop now boasts a wide variety of shells, he easily slips back to those days.

“A lot of people can’t believe you can make a living selling shells!” – David Thomas

Thomas gets shells from suppliers all over the world.

“This was all just sand,” he said, gesturing the the now-bustling Embarcadero around us. “It was just a little narrow road.” That boy with his wheelbarrow full of abalones grew his business into an international operation, importing shells from around the world. After the first global shells arrived from Mexico, Thomas began traveling and developing contacts around the world. Today, the shop sells items from, among other places:

  • Philippines
  • India
  • Australia
  • Mozambique
  • Zanzibar
  • Sri Lanka

“A lot of these shells,” Thomas explained, “are collected by the fishermen. And then you have to teach them how to save the shell and take care of it. They’re just byproducts of the fishing industry. Almost all shells are consumed for food.”

By developing strong ties with shell suppliers, Thomas ensures that he gets on the best quality specimens, which arrive on 20 and 40-foot containers.  “They know to send us just what we want,” he said. “That’s one advantage of being in business so long; we’ve developed some great sources over the years.”

The Allure of Shells

A case running along the rear wall of the store houses rare shells from around the world.

Store clerk Connie Kecker began working at the Shell Shop in 1978, and came on full time in the early ’80s. The draw, she said, is that “there’s something for every price range, and they’re natural products–found in nature, and very few are enhanced.”

Even more impressive, “he does minimal to no advertising,” she said, adding that many customers are multigenerational. Shopping for shells is a family affair in Morro Bay.

Thomas, who clearly appreciates such loyalty, said, “we’re very fortunate that we have the same people coming back over and over.”

While summer tourists certainly drive his business, Thomas noted that he has  “a fairly big clientele of what they call shell collectors, who come in and just purchase the more rare ones. They come pretty much all year round.”

First time customer Ginny Raymond was dazzled at the array of nautical wonders.

“I really like it. I want shells for my house!” – Ginny Raymond

As a student, she also appreciates the affordability the shop offers. “The prices are amazing, really reasonable,” she said.

21st Century Shells

Most knickknacks are made overseas and shipped to the shop.

In the 56 years since Thomas sold those first abalones, incredible changes have occurred both in the world and in his little corner of Morro Bay. He spoke about the evolution of the Embarcadero before explaining how his business has been affected by such a rapidly shifting world.

“It’s become a lot more difficult now to just import a seashell. In the old days it was easier,” he said. “Now you have to have permits. All these containers are inspected because of heightened security, so it’s a lot more expensive and more difficult.”

Obstacles aside, Thomas and his bevy of global sources don’t plan on stopping their spread of shells any time soon. If anything, Thomas just enjoys this venture too much.

“It’s just been kinda fun. It’s like Christmas every day,” he said. “It’s kind of like a challenge to get new and different things from overseas all the time. You never know what’s going to show up.”

Visit the Shell Shop at 590 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, or call at (805)772-8014.

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3 Responses to “Excelling in Shells”

  1. eaglezuke February 23, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    Interesting post. It’s funny because about a month ago my dad (who grew up in Los Osos and went to high school at Morro Bay) and I had a big discussion about this shop and how it makes money. Now we know haha

  2. David April 8, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I am the owner of The Shell Shop… I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for the awesome article! We appreciate how accurate you were with the facts! It is definitely a fun store, a fun business to be in! Hope to see you in the store again soon!

    • kkenney90 April 8, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

      Thank you! It was a really fun assignment and I enjoyed learning about how the store came to be. I will definitely be back soon!

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